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State’s dispute with the Ho-Chunk Nation over gambling payments continues

 

By Ryan J. Foley
Madison, Wisconsin (AP)1-08

The Ho-Chunk Nation might still owe the state tens of millions of dollars in gambling payments after a federal appeals court declined Monday to throw out a lawsuit brought by the state.

But the decision leaves several legal questions unanswered, casting doubt on whether the state will receive the money by next year to balance the budget as lawmakers have assumed.

The decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals left only one thing clear: the dispute that started in 2004 is far from over.

The dispute revolves around $72 million the state is seeking under a gaming compact Gov. Jim Doyle signed with the tribe in 2003. The compact allowed the tribe to offer some Las Vegas-style games at its casinos in exchange for bigger annual payments to the state.

But the tribe stopped offering the games after a state Supreme Court decision invalidated a similar compact with another tribe in 2004. The tribe resumed the games after another Supreme Court ruling in 2006.

The Ho-Chunk Nation, which runs casinos in Wisconsin Dells, Nekoosa and Black River Falls, has said it does not owe the state a dime but is willing to negotiate a new compact.

The state sued the Ho-Chunk in federal court in 2005 to try to compel binding arbitration, which the tribe has resisted.

In its ruling in January, the appeals court rejected the tribe’s argument that its sovereignty shielded it from the state’s lawsuit.

The court returned the case to U.S. District Judge John Shabaz to determine whether the state’s claims are subject to arbitration. If he says they are, an arbitrator would still have to decide the case, which could take several more months.

The state is pleased with the decision and anxious to get to arbitration, said Wisconsin Department of Administration spokeswoman Linda Barth.

Lawyers for the tribe were still studying the ruling and had no immediate comment.

The stakes are high because the two-year budget that went into effect last year assumes the state will collect money from the tribe by June 30, 2009.

Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said the state’s failure to collect that money and a slowing economy could blow a huge hole in the budget. That could require lawmakers to order midyear budget cuts or raid other revenue sources, he said.

“The bottom line is we’re not getting the money right now. It goes to another court and it’s unclear if we’ll get it,” he said. “It creates more problems for a state budget already riddled with troubles.”

 

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